Shetland: Cooking On The Edge Of The World

by Alastair Hamilton -

In his welcome to Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World, James Morton points out that co-authorship of food books may not be unusual but “fathers and sons working together on the same subject is…a little odd.” Perhaps, but in this case the proof of the pudding is in the reading.

James was a finalist in the third series of The Great British Bake Off, broadcast in late 2012. He’s subsequently written books about bread, baking in general and home brewing. He's made many appearances on television and at food festivals and all of that has had to be fitted around his training as a doctor.

His father is Tom Morton, “recovering” journalist, radio and television broadcaster and author, who has covered topics ranging from music to golf and whisky to motoring. For a year, he was the writer behind the “Oor Wullie” cartoon character in Scotland’s Sunday Post newspaper.

The family home is at Hillswick, in the beautiful district of Northmavine, the north-western corner of Shetland’s mainland. The many photographs by Andy Sewell that punctuate the text do full justice to the area’s wonderful coastal scenery and, of course, the food.

Neither Shetland nor Northmavine are ordinary places, and this is no ordinary cookbook. It opens with a brisk, fact-checking introduction to Shetland: no, it’s never ‘the Shetlands’; the nearest railway station is in Thurso, Scotland, not Bergen, Norway; and we’re in Shetland, not on Shetland.

this is no ordinary cookbook

A concise history lesson captures the essentials in just a page, followed by fuller introductions to the authors. Tom’s Shetland baptism, when he was sent to write about the coming of oil, involved a quarry manager, who extolled the virtues of the place thus:

“My first week, in the summer, I was asked to a party, and they spit-roasted a sheep, mate, at midnight. Sociable? I’ve never been anywhere as sociable as this. And I’m from Liverpool, lad. Fancy a beer?”

Shetland, Tom quickly realised, was “a place of welcome. A place without judgement.” And he fell in love with the islands, and with Dr Susan Bowie, the Northmavine GP.

For James, these days, “Shetland is my escape” from the pressures of life as a doctor in Glasgow. But Shetland clearly offered a wonderful childhood, enlivened by his parents’ attempts at self-sufficiency (later graphically described by Tom) and by the after-school introduction to baking provided by his gran.

However, the first cooking instructions in the book have nothing to do with her pies or sponges. After an excursion into the tradition of Shetland foys – “feasts of celebration and farewell and season’s end” – we’re on the beach, digging an inter-tidal, stone-lined Viking fire pit in which lamb shanks, pork ribs, tatties, carrots, neeps and rhubarb are cooked to perfection under a bed of seaweed, with a starter of succulent mackerel roasting gently in another seaweed pyre nearby.

Next up are two other Shetland traditions, bannocks and reestit mutton, including illuminating discourses on the science of both. Reest, as it’s also known, is mutton on the bone that’s been “dry-cured and then smoke-dried over an open fire.” It’s also “the world’s greatest stock cube” and so, of course, there is a recipe for that Shetland foy essential, reest and tattie soup.

Then we’re off to sea, with recipes for salmon, sea trout, mackerel, piltock (pollack), Indo-Shetlandic fish ‘n’ chips, pickled herring, mussels, buckies (common whelks), Susan’s lobster thermidor, and crab. Along the way, we’re instructed in the niceties of fish gutting and visit the poignant remains of the fishing station at Fethaland:

“Weep for the bravery of these fishermen, often working for landlords who only paid in goods and contempt. Recognise what debt Shetland owes to them, and how important fishing is to these islands.”

There’s a really helpful, detailed and encouraging chapter on hot and cold smoking, with more recipes, including one for smoked steak and another for golden syrup bacon. Meat of various kinds gets another chapter: melt-in-the-mouth lamb shoulder, mutton pie, Lizzie’s very slow-cooked beef cheek, piglets’ testicles, hare, rabbit and chicken. James extols the pleasures and challenges of growing fruit and vegetables, including “endless, endless kale. We pretended to like it before it became cool.”

A polycrub – the heavy-duty version of a polytunnel that’s made in Shetland – hugely expands the range of what can be grown, ranging from raspberries to apples and squashes. The recipes that follow range from “singing carrots” and “rational non-magic mushroom soup” to rhubarb, ginger and whisky jam.

Talking of jam, James takes us on a tour of the Shetland Sunday teas: “they’re bizarre, brilliant events and they should form a part of every community everywhere because they make the world a better place.” He admits that he has attended as many as three teas in one afternoon, in the interests of research for the book, and I suspect he’s not alone in that achievement. Naturally, there are recipes for some of the components of a Sunday tea, including three ‘fancies’ (shortbread, jam and coconut slice and fairy cakes), Scotch eggs, salt-water biscuits, drop scones and fruit loaf (or Hufsie – a recipe leavened here by an exploration of the Whalsay dialect).

they’re bizarre, brilliant events

Given his Bake Off success, it’s no surprise to find a substantial section on baking, beginning with a fuller explanation of that baking apprenticeship under instruction from his gran, “a truly great baker”, whose beaten-up, scribbled-on recipe book is both a treasured legacy and the source of the next set of recipes that include her apple pie, lemon meringue pie and jaffa cakes. These are followed by more temptations – sourdough, oatcakes, brownies and tiffin.

The penultimate chapter leads us through the Shetland calendar and, by association, into the food traditions immortalised by Margaret B Stout in her Cookery for Northern Wives, first published in 1925 and still available. There’s appreciation, too, of later writers including Charlie Simpson (In Da Galley) and, much more recently, Marian Armitage (Shetland Food and Cooking).

New Year, Up Helly Aa (described at length), the much more obscure Bena Sunday, Beltane, Da Big Bannock, the agricultural shows, Lammas, Halloween, Christmas: they’re all here, and well and wittily explained. There’s a meditation on darkness: “there to be enjoyed, to provide you with a new appreciation of this extraordinary environment.” James shares the scientific secrets that ought to secure first prize for lemon drizzle cake at an agricultural show. There are proper stovies, too: “imagine all the aspects of a roast dinner, chopped and mushed together with gravy. Astounding.”

The book concludes with a dram – several, in fact – with thoughts on gin, whisky and, especially, dark rum, that fortifier of chilly Up Helly Aa participants and an ingredient in what looks like a very effective multi-purpose cure-all. We’re also offered the kind of tea you only find in older crofters’ homes, a Shetland improvement on eggnog and that traditional Shetland staple, blaand, which is a fermented milk.

It’s a cook book, certainly. There’s lots to inspire, and thanks in particular to James’ fascination with the science of cooking, lots to learn. The food is, by turns, inventive, nostalgic, seductive.

But Shetland: Cooking on the Edge of the World is very much more. Anyone who arrived in Shetland in the 1970s will instantly recognise Tom’s stories of immersion in bewildering but wonderfully welcoming foys and the frenzy of activity that filled the days as well as many of the nights. That Liverpudlian quarryman wasn’t wrong and there are many other laugh-out-loud moments.

Everyone will be warmed, if not moved close to tears, by James’ description of his childhood, and especially his mother’s work and its influence on the community and on him. The authors’ characterisation of that community, and of Shetland as a whole, is unflinching and at the same time unfailingly affectionate. It rings true. This is a very welcome addition to the extensive Shetland bookshelf and, for anyone contemplating a move to Shetland, essential reading.

It rings true

It is, as Tom says, about place, and “a culture and community spirit that has been all but lost in the rest of the UK.” A place which, he affirms, is “the most contented place in the world”.

But really – as father and son acknowledge – it’s a love story.

Posted in: Recipes

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